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Time to Brag! Say Libs and NDP

Lists of achievements are, ahem, highly selective.

Russ Francis 23 May
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Perfectly positive premier.

Last Wednesday, May 17, marked the anniversary of the general election that returned the BC Liberals to power -- and resulted in an 11-fold increase in the size of the NDP opposition ranks, to 33 MLAs.

To celebrate the occasion, each side, in full self-congratulatory mode, issued statements of its accomplishments for the year.

First off the mark were the Liberals, who published a 32-page propaganda booklet, One Year Later...Real Results for British Columbians. Hard-copy versions, printed on glossy paper, were delivered to the press gallery.

It was another instance of our tax dollars at work. Though One Year Later was formally produced by the BC Liberal caucus, rather than the government itself, it still relied on public funds, provided out of the legislature's own $55 million budget.

Adorned with dozens of colour photographs and charts, the publication is as interesting for what it omits as for what it includes.

Libs and kids

For example, on a page headed "Caring for BC's Children," the Liberals boast that they "created a new independent representative for children and youth to advocate on behalf of children and families."

Who could object to that?

One minor detail missing from this is that the government took action only after Ted Hughes's strongly worded April 7 report.

But there's a much bigger omission.

It was the Liberals themselves who, four years ago, abolished the original children's commissioner.

In a February 7, 2002 press release announcing the abolition, then-attorney general Geoff Plant claimed that the move was needed to eliminate "duplication and confusion" in the area of child protection. The work of the commissioner, an independent officer of the legislature like the ombudsman and the auditor general, was taken over by a political appointee.

"Our government is committed to ensuring the safety and well-being of children, youth and their families," Plant said in the 2002 statement, offering what seems, in retrospect, like a sad parody of what was to happen.

In any event, it's at least a little galling when a government takes action, waits a few years, reverses itself, and then boasts that the flip-flop is an "accomplishment."

Boasting of health care

According to One Year Later, the Liberals are "Doing More for Patients," to use the headline from another page.

They've added 96 new doctor training spaces. They've boosted the number of first-year residencies available for foreign-trained doctors by -- wait for it -- 12 places. They've added 508 new college and university places for nurses and other health students. And so on.

But there's another addition in health care that the Liberals didn't bother mentioning in One Year Later.

In May 2002, the Liberals increased medical services plan premiums by no less than 50 percent, from $36 to $54 for a single person, and from $64 to $96 for couples. Even the Canadian Taxpayers Federation denounced the move as nothing more than a tax hike.

There are other unfortunate omissions in One Year Later. According to the report, the BC Liberals have introduced "A New Vision for Coastal BC," as the headline on another page reads.

Included among the Liberals' environmental achievements is the creation of a special legislature committee on sustainable aquaculture.

The committee's official mandate is to "examine, inquire into and make recommendations with respect to sustainable aquaculture in British Columbia." Its report is due next year.

A laudable move, to be sure, if a little overdue.

But One Year Later fails to mention that it was the Liberal government itself that four years ago ended the moratorium on fish farms.

To make matters worse, on March 30 of this year it did an end-run around that very special legislature committee by approving a new fish farm, to be operated by Grieg Seafood BC Ltd, in the contentious Broughton Archipelago.

The same page of the report also displays a picture of a Kermode bear, which the Liberals have now made our official mammal.

Yet there was not a word of a far more significant environmental event on the coast during the year: the inadvertent creation of an artificial reef off Gil Island, albeit one that is full of fuel. We are speaking here of the tragic sinking of an aging BC ferry.

Big spenders

Of course, the Liberals have accomplished far more.

They're spending an extra $421 million over four years on caring for children, says the report. They spent $6 billion on pay for public sector workers. School districts are getting $5 million more for literacy. The province is boosting per-student funding for K-12 students to a record high, and is unloading $2.2 billion on school building and maintenance projects. The First Nations New Relationship Trust is picking up $100 million from taxpayers. Health spending will hit more than $13 billion next year. And so on.

So there: "We're throwing big bucks around," is the bluntly stated message. Nyah-nyah-nyah, nyah nyah-nyah.

What's missing from all this is the emphasis on results. Instead of measuring performance, the report dwells on inputs -- how much of our money they unloaded. Yet while in opposition, the Liberals repeatedly blasted the NDP government of the day for doing just that.

On page nine of Real Results there's a colour shot of a smiling premier Gordon Campbell holding up a copy of the Vancouver Sun, for which his brother Michael writes a regular column.

With his government's supposed interest in online technology, it's beyond me why the premier wasn't instead pictured displaying a page from The Tyee's website.

NDP spin

Not to be outdone, the NDP opposition circulated its own anniversary newsletter, via e-mail.

Admittedly, when it comes to omissions, the NDP's list of accomplishments during the year couldn't hope to match that of the government.

The newsletter correctly points out that the New Democrats forced the Liberals to hold back on changes to the freedom of information and protection of privacy act. The changes would have permitted the government to require the withholding of large portions of financial and other information concerning public-private partnerships designated as "joint solution projects."

In effect, the provision would have made it much easier for the province, Crown corporations, municipalities, universities, school boards and other public bodies to spend taxpayer funds without the scrutiny afforded by the act.

The NDP deserves full credit for, along with many others, objecting to the changes. As part of a deal worked out with the Liberals to end the spring session in relative harmony, the amendments were dropped until the fall.

But there was another, equally bothersome part of the government's freedom of information amendments that the New Democrats allowed to pass, despite arguing against it.

These amendments, which became law on May 18, remove some of the restrictions against sending personal records outside of Canada.

But it would be wrong to claim that the NDP and the Liberals are entirely at odds with one another.

Both parties' anniversary lists of accomplishments share one omission. Neither has a word on the two caucuses' magnificent achievement in first agreeing on, and then rejecting, last November's pay raise for MLAs.

Russ Francis, a veteran legislative reporter in Victoria, is a regular contributor to The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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